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East Asian Buddhism

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Bodhisattva Guanyin; 11th/12th century A.D.; Shanxi Province, China; Liao Dynasty (A.D. 907–1125)

East Asian Buddhism (or Eastern Buddhism) refers to the form of Buddhism practiced in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. All these traditions share a common basis of the Chinese Buddhist Canon, which is grounded in the Mahayana school of thought. Within this context, the "Korean and Japanese forms and schools derive directly from Chinese forms and schools, although they subsequently developed distinctive local traditions."[1] The dominant Buddhist traditions in Vietnam also derive from the Chinese schools.

Buddhism first entered China via the Silk Road routes through central Asia sometime during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), and also via sea routes from India and Sri Lanka. From China, Buddhism entered the Korean peninsula in the fourth century, and then Japan in the sixth century.[1] The region of Nam Viet (the predecessor to the modern Vietnamese state) was largely a vassal state of the Chinese Empire from 111 BC until 939 CE, and absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, including the Chinese forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

Contemporary scholar Robert Buswell asserts that in the pre-modern world, there was "ready interterchange of Buddhist ideas between China, Korea and Japan, and other traditions as well". He suggests that this reflects the existence of an East Asian Buddhism that is "something more than the sum of its constituent parts".[2]

Buswell also suggests that Buddhist monks of East Asia saw themselves "not so much as Korean monks, Chinese monks, or Japanese monks. But instead as joint collaborators in a religious tradition that transcended contemporary notions of nation and time."[2]

Early development

The Buddhist world at the time of transmission to China

A rough approximation of the early transmission of Buddhism.

Contemporary Scholar Rupert Gethin states:

When Buddhism began entering China the Mahāyāna was still in its early stages of development; the writings of Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, and Vasubandhu were still to come.[3]

Contemporary scholar Erik Zürcher suggests that Buddhist monasteries were already established in central Asia at the time when Buddhism was introduced to China. Zürcher states:

By the beginning of the second century CE, Buddhist monasteries could be found all over the Kushan empire: in Afghanistan and Kashmir, in the most prosperous parts of present-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, in the Ferghana valley and the upper and middle reaches of the Amu-darya. This was the situation in the western parts of Central Asia by the time the first missionaries crossed the dry heart of the continent on their way to China: monks from northwestern India and Kashmir (Tianzhu 天竺, Jibin 罽賓), Parthia (Anxi 安息), Sogdiana (Kangju 康居), and, less precisely localized, the country of the Indoscythians (Yuezhi 月支).[4]

Translation into the Chinese language

In one's own tongue

According to Erik Zurcher, early Buddhist texts did not express a preference for a "sacred language" of the dharma. Rather, the Buddha recommended that the dharma should be expressed in one's own tongue. Zurcher states:

For our purpose it is important to note that this diffusion of Buddhist texts was not coupled with the preference—let alone prescription—of any “sacred language.” On the contrary, possibly as a reaction to the exclusive use of Sanskrit in the Brahminical tradition, in a much-debated Vinaya passage the Buddha is said to have explicitly permitted to preach the Law “in one’s own tongue” (sakåya niruttiyå, variously rendered in Chinese by guoyin... “the [speech-]sounds of the country” and guo su yanyin..., “the common speech-sounds of a country”).
In its original context this obviously referred to closely interrelated regional languages or dialects, and eventually also to Sanskrit. However, it is an important fact that the translation of texts as a corollary to the propagation of Buddhism was fully accepted and practised long before Buddhism spread beyond the Indian subcontinent[5]

Linguistic breakthough

Song Dynasty Chinese printed sutra page

The translation of Buddhist texts into the Chinese language represented a "linguistic break-through" for the transmission of Buddhism. It was the first time that Buddhist texts were translated into a non-Prakrit language. Erik Zurcher explains:

Thus, the production of the earliest Buddhist texts in Chinese, around the middle of the second century CE, marks a “linguistic break-through” in the spread of the dharma: for the first time scriptures had to be translated into a language totally unrelated to any Indian tongue, instead of being “transposed” from one Prakrit to another, or from Prakrit to Sanskrit, a process that allowed for an almost word-by-word transposition without any appreciable loss as regards content and way of expression. As we shall see, this change from transposition to “restatement through translation” was to have far-reaching consequences for the propagation of Buddhism in China.[5]

Melting pot

In the early transmission of Buddhist to China, Buddhist texts and traditions were transmitted from multiple points of origin from within the Indian sub-contenent and Central Asia within a short period of time. As a result, the Buddhism that developed in China become a "melting pot" of a variety of distinct traditions that had developed within the existing Buddhist world of that time period.

Erik Zurcher states:

Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of the spread of Buddhism to East Asia is the fact that China, being situated at the terminus of both the transcontinental caravan roads and the maritime route from south and southeast Asia, did not receive the foreign creed from one particular region but from many centres simultaneously. In the early medieval period it received impulses (in terms of missionaries, texts, rituals and artistic traditions) from virtually the whole Buddhist world, altogether some fifteen different regions, ranging from Kashmir to Sri Lanka, and from Samarkand to the Mekong basin. As a result, Chinese Buddhism became a melting pot of different types of Buddhism, a mass of scriptural, disciplinary and scholastic traditions of various provenance that not seldom contradicted each other. That diversity goes back to the very beginning of the “church of Luoyang” in the second century CE, when Hinayana scriptures were introduced by the Parthian missionary An Shigao 安世高 and Mahayana texts by his younger contemporary, the Indoscythian Lokaksema; shortly afterwards Amitabha devotionalism came to complicate the picture.[6]

Traditions of China and East Asia

Different schools of Buddhism began to emerge in China around the fifth century CE. Peter Harvey states:

From the fifth century, a number of different schools of Buddhism emerged, each being known as a zong (tsung): a ‘clan’ which traced its lineage back to a certain founder or patriarch. Each school specialized in a particular aspect of Buddhist teaching or practice, and monks and nuns often studied or practiced according to several of them.[7]

Some of these schools were based directly on corresponding Indian schools, and others originated within China.

Forms of most of these schools are also found in Korea and Japan,[3] and in Vietnam.

Schools based directly on Indian schools

The following schools were based directly on Indian schools:[8]

  • Salun ('Three Treatise') school - from Indian Madhyamaka
  • Faxiang (Fa-hsiang; 'Characteristics of Dharmas') school - from Indian Yogacara
  • Zheyan (Chen-yen; 'Mantra' or 'Efficacious World') school - from Indian tantric Buddhism

Schools that originated in China

The following schools originated in China and were later transmitted to the other East Asian countries:

  • Tiantai (T’ien-t’ai)
  • Huayan (Hua-yen)
  • Chan (Ch’an)
  • Pure Land


White Horse Temple, traditionally held to be at the origin of Chinese Buddhism.
Seated Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin), wood and pigment, 11th century, Chinese Northern Song dynasty

Indian-imported schools

The schools in this section were based on corresponding schools within the Indian Buddhist tradition.

Salun (Madhyamaka)

The Salun ('Three Treatise') school is based on the Indian Madhyamaka philosophy. This school was introduced by the translator Kumarajiva, and was based on three key texts:

  • the Madhyamaka-karika,
  • some verses of Nagarjuna, and
  • a work of Aryadeva.

In each case, a commentary was embedded with the texts.

Faxiang (Yogacara)

The Faxiang (Fa-hsiang; 'Characteristics of Dharmas') school is based on the Indian Yogacara tradition. This school was introduced by the pilgrim translator Hsuan-tsang

Zheyan (Mantra)

The Zheyan (Chen-yen; 'Mantra' or 'Efficacious World') school was based on the Indian Tantric Buddhist traditions. This school died out in China in the 9th century, but it was transmitted to Korea and Japan. The Japanese form of this school, Shingon, still exists.

Synthesizing schools: Tiantai and Huayan

By the middle of the sixth century CE, a great variety of Buddhist texts had been translated from Sanskrit or other Indic languages into Chinese. Many of the teachings in these various texts seemed to contradict each other.

Both Tiantai (Tien-t’ai) and Hauyan (Hua-yen) schools emphasized organizing and classifying these texts in order to resolve these contradictions among the texts, and thus present a coherent system of thought. Both schools employed the logic that the Buddha taught different teachings at different times according to the capacity of the audience. That is, the Buddha adapted his teachings to the ability of his listeners to understand them.[9]

Peter Harvey states:

Both the synthesizing schools flourished in the Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618– 907). Influenced by Chinese ways of thought, they emphasized ultimate reality as immanent in the world, like the Dao, and as fathomable by penetration into the thusness of any natural phenomenon.[10]


The Tiantai (Tien-t'ai) school was founed by Chih-i (538–97), who arranged the Buddha’s teachings according to the ‘five periods and eight teachings’. The final teaching of the Buddha is said to be the Lotus Sutra.

Rupert Gethin explains further:

Chih-i expressed his understanding of Buddhist metaphysics and dependent arising in the form of a doctrine known as ‘the threefold truth’: phenomena are at once empty of existence, temporarily existing, and poised in the middle between existence and non-existence. Associated with the elaboration of this doctrine, which is seen as relating all things to each other and to the whole, is a theory of the ‘interpénétration’ of all phenomena: every individual thing in the universe contains and at the same time is contained in everything else, or, as Chih-i himself would put it, one thought is the 3,000 worlds. While some of the writings of Chih-i represent sophisticated (and mind-boggling) intellectual meditations on the interdependence of all things, others also show a concern for the down-to-earth problems and practicalities of just sitting in meditation.[11]


The Huayan or "Flower Garland" school is based on a unique interpreation of the Avatamsaka (Flower Garland) Sutra. This school first flourished in China during the Tang dynasty.

Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin states:

The Hua-yen school was founded by Tu-shun (557–640) and its thought was developed especially in the writings of Fa-tsang (643–712). For Hua-yen the vast Avataṃsaka or ‘Flower Garland’ Sūtra collection represents the highest teaching. As with Tien-t’ai, great emphasis is put on an elaborate theory of the interpenetration of all phenomena.[12]

Peter Harvey states:

The Huayan (Hua-yen) school...put the Avatamsaka Sutra in pride of place. Founded by the meditation-master Dushun (Tushun; 557– 640), it was philosophically systematized by its third patriarch Fazang (Fa-tsang; 643– 712), and came to be influential on the Chan school.[10]

The Huayan school is known as Hwaeom in Korea and Kegon in Japan.


Traditional Chan Buddhist Grand Master Wei Chueh in Taiwan, sitting in meditation.

The Chan (Ch'an) school emphasizes the importance of direct insight into the nature of reality. This insight is developed primarily through combining the practice of sitting meditation with a direct mind-to-mind transmission from master to disciple. While both philosophical study and good works are also emphasized in this school, these are considered of little use without the wisdom that comes from direct insight into true nature of reality. In this view, while philosophy and positive actions play in important role on the spiritual path, obstacles arise if the student becomes overly attached to these methods. For example, obstacles can arise for:

  • a scholar who becomes arrogant at their accumulation of knowledge
  • an ordinary person who performs good deeds, but with a selfish motivation

Thus, in Chan, insight into reality is given the highest importance.[13]


The Chan recognizes the Indian monk Bodhidharma as its founder and “first patriarch.” Bodhidharma is said to have traveled from India to China in the fifth or sixth century CE. According to Rupert Gethin, “it is likely that the roots of Ch’an lie further back in Chinese Buddhist history.”[14]

Rubert Gethin describes the philosophical basis of Chan as follows:

Bodhidharma is said to have emphasized the teachings of the Lankāvatāra Sūtra, and the theoretical basis of Ch’an centres on the notions of the tathāgatagarbha and ‘emptiness’ as pointing beyond all conceptual forms of thought. Our innermost nature is simply the Buddha-nature (fo-hsing) which is to be realized in a direct and sudden experience of inner awakening (wu/satori).[14]

Around the ninth century in China, there were five schools of Chan. But following a government suppression of Buddhism in 842, only two schools emerged:[15][16]

  • Linji (Lin Chi; Japanese Rinzai)
    • Founded by Linji (died 867).
    • Emphasized the use of gong-ans (koans), direct methods in teacher-student interviews, and 'sudden awakening'
  • Cao-dong (Ts’ao Tung; Japanese Soto)
    • Founded by Dongshan (Tung-shan; 807– 69) and Caoshan (Ts’ao-shan; 840– 901)
    • Emphasized a particular form of sitting meditation, and 'gradual awakening'

"While the Japanese forms of these two schools have remained separate, they merged in China during the Ming dynasty (1368– 1644)."[16]

Key texts of the Chan school

Peter Harvey states:

The philosophical background of Chan comes from various texts and streams of thought. One is the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, especially the Heart Sutra and Diamond-cutter Sutra and their idea of emptiness, two levels of truth, and paradoxical modes of expression. Another is the Lankavatara Sutra, a Yogcara text which also draws on ideas of the Tathgata-garbha. The Indian Yogcara school saw human experience as a projection out of the ‘storehouse consciousness’, due to the maturation of karmic seeds in it. The Lankavatara Sutra equated this kind of unconscious mind with the Tathgata-garbha... Another influence came from the above two texts on the ‘Buddha-nature’: the ‘Treatise on the Buddha-nature’ and ‘Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana’. As the Dharma-kaya, the ‘One Mind’ of the latter text is seen in Chan as the ‘original enlightenment’ of all beings... Many of these ideas are also found in the Huayan school, with its ideas of the One Mind as the unifying principle from which everything is made... In many ways Huayan can be seen as the philosophical counterpart of Chan.[17]

Pure Land (China)

Amitābha and his attendant bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara (right) and Mahāsthāmaprāpta (left)

The 'Pure Land' or Jingtu (Ching-t’u) school emphasizes faith in the buddha Amitabha. The main practice of this school is the recitation of the mantra of Amitabha; this practice is called nianfo in Chinese (nien-fo, Jap. nembutsu). It is believed that if one recites the mantra and has sufficient faith in Amitabha, then Amitabha will appear to the faithful one at the time of their death, and take them to his heavenly abode--referred to as the Amitabha Pure Land (Sanskrit: Sukhavati).

This school became popular among lay people because it does not require extensive training in meditation or philosophy, or require one to become a monk. The main practice of mantra recitation (nianfo) can be performed by anyone, regardless of their status in society. The main requirement for the practice is trust in buddha Amitabha.

In practice, some Pure Land teachers within China emphasized combining recitation of the Amitabha mantra with developing mindfulness and concentration, and doing good works.


An early form of the Pure Land school was found by Huiyuan (334– 416) in the beginning of the fifth century. But Tanluan (T’an-luan; 476– 542) is recognized as the official 'first patriarch'. Peter Harvey explains:

While [Tanluan's] writings drew on Madhyamika and Yogacara ideas, he stressed faith in the power of Amitbha’s vows, which could save even an evil-doer. His ideal was establishing a pure, firm and uninterrupted faith throughout life. This would ensure the ability, as death approached, to call on Amitbha for ten consecutive moments of genuine faith: the minimum requirement for rebirth in Sukhvati. The main practice he advocated was one called nianfo (nien-fo, Jap. nembutsu)... He explained [nianfo] to mean both ‘recollection’ and ‘calling on’ Amitbha, this being done by repeatedly reciting the Chinese translation of the short formula of praise to Amitbha.[18]

The second patriarch of the Pure Land school was Daochuo (Tao-ch’o; 562– 645). Daocho emphasized the concept that the world has entered into a degenerate age, referred to as the "age of the ‘latter-day Dharma’ (Ch. mofa (ma-fa), Jap. mappo)."[19] According to Daochuo, since the times are so degenerate, it is more important that ever to rely on the power Amitabha.

The third patriarch was Shandao (Shan-tao; 613– 81). Shandao helped increase the popularity of the school. "From the ninth century, the school was so widely diffused that it no longer needed special patriarchs as leaders."[19]

Key texts of the Pure Land school

The Chinese Pure Land school relies on the following texts as the basis for their beliefs:

  • The three main sutras related to Amitabha:[20][21]
    • Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life (also known as the Larger Sutra on Amitāyus; the Sanskrit text is popularly known as the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra )
    • Sutra on Amitāyus Buddha (also known as the Amida Sutra or the Smaller Sutra on Amitāyus; the Sanskrit text is popularly known as the Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra )
    • Guan Wuliangshou jing (Sūtra on the Visualization of the Buddha of Immeasurable Life)
  • and the Sukhavati-vyuhopadesa (‘ Instruction on the Array of the Happy Land’), a work attributed to Vasubandhu which systematizes the ideas of the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra.[22]


Monks going down to their rooms after evening prayers at the Haeinsa temple in South Korea.

Buddhism was introduced into the Korean peninsula from China beginning in the fourth century, and by the sixth century it had reach the whole peninsula. Korean monks studied in China during the sixth and seventh centuries, and brought back most of the schools of Chinese Buddhism. By the twelfth century, the entire Chinese canon was translated into Korean. In the fourteenth century, Buddhism dominated Korean cultural life.[23]

During this period of Buddhist influence in Korea, there was also competition from the neo-Confucianist tradition. Beginning around the late fourteenth century, Buddhism began suffering from government repression. Peter Harvey explains:

Buddhism suffered a reversal in the Yi dynasty (1392–1910), when Neo-Confucianism from China came to be adopted as the state ideology. In the early fifteenth century, monastery lands were confiscated, monasteries were reduced to 242, then 88, and schools were reduced to 7, then to 2 umbrella organizations. These were the Seon, or Meditation school, dominated by Seon, but including Kyeyul (Ch. Lü), Ch’ont’ae and Milgyo (Ch. Zhenyan), and the Kyo, or Textual school, which included the remaining schools. Monks were banned from entering the capital (1623), and aristocrats’ children were forbidden from ordaining. Buddhism therefore retreated to mountain monasteries, and ticked over as a religion of the masses, as in China, with a revival developing in the 1890s.[24]

Contemporary scholar Robert Buswell asserts that pre-modern Korean scholarship has had a significant influence on the rest of East Asian Buddhism. He notes that "Korean commentarial and scriptural writing were all composed in literary Chinese."[2] He asserts that the texts written in Korea were often able to exert the same influence throughout East Asia as were texts written in China proper.[2]


Pagoda of Yakushi-ji in Nara (730)

Early history

Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan in 538 CE when a Korean king sent ambassadors with an a group of monks, some texts, and an image of the Buddha. Subsequently, much of Chinese culture, including Daoism and Confucianism were also transmitted to Japan. During the Nara period (710– 84), Buddhist monks began acting as scribes thus introducing a written language to Japan.[25]

Over time, six schools of Chinese Buddhism were introduced into Japan. During during the early Nara period (710– 84), the Kegon (Chinese Hauyan) school the most influential. The Tendai (Ch. T’ien-t’ai) school was introduced from China in 805, and it established its main temple at Mount Hiei, near Kyoto. The Shingon (Chinese Mantrayana Zhenyan) school was introduced in 816, and it established its main temple at Mount Koya. The founder of the Shingon school helped to develop the present written form of the Japanese language. The Shingon school came to be favored by the royal court (based in Kyoto) and also influenced the Tendai tradition.[25]

According to Peter Harvey, the Shingon and Tendai schools became decadent over time and "a period of social, political and religious chaos occurred, such that the ‘period of the latter-day Dharma’... was seen to have started in 1052." During the period form 1132-1333, the country was ruled by military Shogons and warrior-nights that came to be known as the samurai. During this period, five new schools of Buddhism were introduced into Japan. They were all introduced by monks who had trained in the Tendai school, but felt that tradition had become corrupted.[26]

Early schools


The Kegon school is based on the Chinese Huayan school. This school was most influential during the Nara period (710– 84), when it was patronized the by emperor and his court.[27]


The Tendai school is a descendant of the Chinese Tiantai or "Lotus Sutra" school. This school was introduced into Japan by the Japanese monk Saicho in 805. In this tradition, the Lotus Sutra represented the highest truth, but elements of Chan, Amitabha devotion and tantric practices were also included. Its head temple-monastery was set up on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto, the capital during this time period. At the temple, Saicho established a twelve-year training program of study, meditation and monastic discipline.[25]


The Shingon (Chinese Mantrayana Zhenyan) school was introduced in 816, and it established its main temple at Mount Koya. The founder of the Shingon school helped to develop the present written form of the Japanese language. The Shingon school came to be favored by the royal court (based in Kyoto) and also influenced the Tendai tradition.[25]

Pure Land (Japan)

The Japanese Pure Land schools are based on the Chinese Pure Land school, and share an emphasis on the Buddha Amitabha. Contemporary translator Hisao Inagaki states:

The Pure Land school is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that centers around the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, known in Sanskrit as Amitābha and Amitāyus, in Chinese as O-mi-tuo fo, and in Japanese as Amida. This buddha is said to dwell in the Land of Utmost Bliss (Sukhāvatī), far to the west of this world, beyond the realm of samsara.[20]

According to this school of Buddhism, if one prays to Amitabha with devotion and performs good deeds, then Amitabha will appear you at death and enable you to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha (Sukhāvatī; Land of Utmost Bliss). Beings who are born in the Amitabha Pure Land will eventually reach buddhahood.

Aspects of Pure Land practice existed in the Tendai school. But the Pure Land school of Japan did not come into being as a separate school until tenth century CE.[28]

Two schools or Pure Land Buddhism developed in Japan

  • Joda Shu (Pure Land)
  • Jodo Shin Shu (True Pure Land)

Jodo Shu

The Jodo Shu ("Pure Land") school was founded by Honen (1133-1212), who popularized the practice of nembutsu, and emphasized a sincere and simple faith in Amitabha. Honen did not found a new school, but one grew from his followers.

Jodo Shinshu

The Jodo Shin Shu ("True Pure Land") school was founded by Shinran (1173-1263). Shinran was a follower of Honen who popularized devotion to Amitabha among the poor and the bushi (the warrior knights who came to be known as the samurai).

Key texts of the Japanese Pure Land school

Contemporary translator Hisao Inagaki states:

The most important scriptures of the Pure Land school are the three texts presented in this volume: 1) the Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life (also known as the Larger Sutra on Amitāyus, abbreviated to Larger Sutra; the Sanskrit text is popularly known as the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra ); 2) the Sutra on Visualization of the Buddha of Infinite Life (abbreviated to Contemplation Sutra ); and 3) the Sutra on Amitāyus Buddha (also known as the Amida Sutra or the Smaller Sutra on Amitāyus, abbreviated to Smaller Sutra; the Sanskrit text is popularly known as the Smaller Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutra ).
These sutras were chosen by Hōnen of Japan (1133–1212) and called the three Pure Land sutras. Actually there are many other sutras and discourses that mention Amitābha and his Land of Bliss. According to Prof. Kōtatsu Fujita, the total number of such scriptures in the Chinese Buddhist canon is two hundred and ninety. The Chinese canon, which was collected and edited in Japan under the title of the Taishō Tripiṭaka, contains two thousand one hundred and eightyfour texts. Thus, more than 13 percent of all the scriptures held to be authentic in the Chinese tradition recognize this buddha and his land.[20]


The Japanese Zen schools are based on the Chinese Chan school, and they share similar philosophy and methods of practice. The Zen schools emphasis the importance of realizing one's true nature (buddha nature), and mind-to-mind transmission from master to disciple.

Both schools of Japanese Zen (Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen) emphasize the methods of:

  • Developing awareness through sessions of sitting meditation
  • The use of koans to break through intellectual obscurations

Generally speaking, the Rinzai school puts more emphasis on the use of koans, while the Soto school places more emphasis on sitting meditation.

Rinzai Zen

The Rinzai Zen school of Japan is based on the Chinese Chan school of Linji (Lin Chi).

Rinzai Zen formed as a distinct school when Eisai (1141-1215) introduced the practices of the Chinese Lin Chi school in Japan. Eisai had trained as a Tendai monk, but he came to feel that the Rinzai/Lin Chi practices were superior to the other forms of practice within Tendai.

The discipline of this form of Zen practice, along with it's indifference to death, appealed to bushi--the warrior class of fuedal Japan that later came to be known as the samurai. "Eisai gained the protection of a Shogun (military dictator) at the capital Kamakura, and established the long-lasting alliance between Rinzai and the bushi/samurai."[29]

Soto Zen

The Soto Zen school of Japan is based on the Chinese Chan school of Caudong (Ts'ao Tung). While Rinzai Zen was successful among the Samurai, Soto Zen was more popular with ordinary people, and it became known as ‘farmers’ Zen’.[29]

History and founder

The Soto Zen school was founded by Dogen (1200– 53), one of the most renowned figures in Japanese Buddhism. Peter Harvey states:

This religious genius, admired by all Japanese, gave Zen both an identity fully separate from Tendai, and a more Japanese form. As a Tendai monk, a problem which plagued him was, if people already have the Buddha-nature, why do they need to exert themselves in religious practice to attain Buddhahood? His quest for an answer took him to a Rinzai temple, and then to China. There he met a master who sparked off an awakening in him. In 1227, he returned to Japan, and though he did not want to found a new school, his single-minded advocation of Zen meant that one formed around him. He attracted many pupils, monastic and lay, male and female, and several times had to move to a bigger temple to accommodate his community. He emphasized a strict and simple life of monastic discipline and zazen, or ‘sitting meditation’, and preferred to have a few good pupils rather than a richly patronized monastery with many sham ones.[29]

Harvey also states:

Dogen advocated zazen, or ‘sitting meditation’, as a return to the true Buddhism of the Buddha, a natural and easy method open to all and encompassing all other practices. He criticized the Rinzai reliance on the koan (see pp.   221– 2) as one-sidedly mental, and stressed the importance of also training the body by correctly using the ‘lotus’ meditation posture of the Buddhas. Zazen is not seen as a ‘method’ to ‘attain’ awakening, but is itself awakening, a way of simply exhibiting one’s innate Buddha-nature...[30]

Harvey also states:

... [Dogen] came to see the whole impermanent world as being the Buddha-nature, as a kind of thusly-changing-reality-flow, whose true nature needs to be known and expressed. A person must sit in zazen with constant awareness, and with faith that he is already a Buddha. The process is one of self-forgetting in which the Buddha-nature gradually unfolds its infinite potential throughout one’s life:
To study the way of the Buddha is to study your own self.
To study your own self is to forget yourself.
To forget yourself is to have the objective world prevail in you [or: be enlightened by all things].
To have the objective world prevail in you, is to let go of your ‘own’ body and mind as well as the body and mind of ‘others’. (Shobogenzo shakui, Genjokoan (BT. 371))[30]
Sitting meditation

Peter Harvey states:

Zen, particularly in its Soto form, attaches great importance to establishing correct posture in sitting meditation. This clearly implies a very close relationship of mind and body... The lower spine should curve inwards, with the rest of the back straight and the abdomen completely relaxed. The area just below the navel, known as the tanden (Jap.), becomes a focus of attention in much Zen meditation (Sekida, 1975: 83– 90). From here, an energy develops that radiates throughout the body, which seems to parallel the importance of the navel cakra in some tantric practices.[31]

According to Harvey:

Once the meditator has learnt how to control his or her wandering thoughts to some extent, he may go on to develop high degrees of awareness while sitting, known as ‘Just Sitting’ (Jap. Shikantaza): the approach of ‘silent illumination’ or ‘serene observation’ (Jap. moku sh). Here, the meditator cultivates nothing but sitting, in full awareness of the here-and-now of sitting, so as to be akin to Theravada ‘applications of mindfulness’ focused on the body, specifically the sitting posture.
The attention in Just Sitting tends to rest on the movement of the respiratory muscles in the tanden area, but is not restricted to this. The meditator sets out to be in a state in which he is not trying to think, nor trying not to think; he just sits with no deliberate thought. When thoughts nevertheless arise, he just lets them pass by without comment, like watching traffic going over a bridge. He hears sounds, and notices any changes in his visual field, but does not react for or against them. If his mind begins ‘mental chatter’ on such a matter, he simply brings it back to sitting, as a Theravada samatha practitioner might bring his mind back to the breath. The emphasis is on letting the mind be uncomplicated, natural, simple, straightforward and open, yet with a bright, positive attitude, in full awareness of the body sitting and the flow of passing thoughts. Ideally, the meditator should be like both an unpretentious frog (MW. 158) and an alert swordsman faced with potential death in a sudden duel.[32]


The One Pillar Pagoda is a historic Mahayana Buddhist temple in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

The territory of modern-day Vietnam was divided amoung three different states for most of pre-modern history. In the north, the state of Nam Viet (the predecessor to the modern Vietnamese state, centered in the Red River Delta) was largely a vassal state of the Chinese Empire from 111 BC until 939 CE, and as such Chinese language and culture, including Chinese forms of Buddhism, were integrated into the Vietnamese culture. The Chinese Chan school (Thien in Vietnamese) and the Pure Land school became the most influential schools in the Nam Viet state. The Thien school was most influential in monasteries and among the elites, while the Pure Land school was most influential among ordinary people. By the tenth century, Buddhism flourished among all classes of people in Nam Viet.[33]

In the central region of modern-day Vietnam, was the kingdom of Champa, which from the third century onwards was influenced by Indian forms of Sravakayana and Mahayana Buddhism, as well as forms of Hinduism. In the south, the Mekong Delta region was part of the Khmer Empire from the 10th century to the 17th century. The Khmers adopted Theravada Buddhism from the 13th century onwards.

From the fifteenth century onwards, the northern Viet state expanded southward, conquering the Champa Empire and eventually annexing the Mekong Delta from the Khmer state. The Viet ethnic group eventually settled throughout the central and southern regions of modern-day Vietnam, thus bringing East Asian forms of Buddhism to the rest of Vietnam. Theravada Buddhism is also practiced, particularly in the south near Cambodia.[33]

Monastic traditions

East Asian Buddhist traditions generally follow the monastic tradition of the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. However, there are exceptions. For example, some sects within Japan do not follow the traditional vinaya vows; these sects permit non-celibate "monks" or "priests".[34]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gethin 1998, p. 257.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Korean Buddhism in an East Asian Context (Video) (relevant part starts at 26 minute mark)
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gethin 1998, p. 258.
  4. Zürcher 2012, p. 5.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Zürcher 2012, p. 3.
  6. Zürcher 2012, p. 7.
  7. Harvey 2012, sv. The schools of Chinese Buddhism.
  8. Harvey 2012, p. 214.
  9. Gethin 1998, p. 264.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Harvey 2012, p. 215.
  11. Gethin 1998, pp. 264-265.
  12. Gethin 1998, p. 265.
  13. Harvey 2012, p. 217.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Gethin 1998, p. 262.
  15. Gethin 1998, p. 263.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Harvey 2012, p. 222.
  17. Harvey 2012, pp. 217-218.
  18. Harvey 2012, p. 216.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Harvey 2012, pp. 216-217.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Inagaki 2003, p. xiii.
  21. Harvey, p 216
  22. Harvey, p 216
  23. Harvey 2012, p. 224.
  24. Harvey 2012, p. 225.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 Harvey 2012, p. 227.
  26. Harvey 2012, p. 228.
  27. Harvey 2012, p. 226.
  28. Harvey 2012, pp. 229-229.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Harvey 2012, p. 231.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Harvey 2012, p. 232.
  31. Harvey 2012, pp. 261-262.
  32. Harvey 2012, pp. 262-263.
  33. 33.0 33.1 Harvey 2012, p. 223.
  34. Why Are Buddhist Monks in Japan Allowed to Get Married?


  • Gethin, Rupert (1998), The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press 
  • Harvey, Peter (2012), An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press (Kindle edition) 
  • Inagaki, Hisao (2003), "Translator's Introduction", Three Pure Land Sutras, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research 
  • Linh Hoang (2012), Rebuilding Religious Experience: Vietnamese Refugees in America, AV Akademikerverlag 
  • Zürcher, Erik (2012), "Buddhism Across Boundaries: The Foreign Input", in McRae, John; Nattier, Jan, Buddhism Across Boundaries: The Interplay of Indian, Chinese, and Central Asian Sources, Sino-Platonic Papers 

External links